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Winston Churchill And “the Natural Captain Of The West”
Fifty years after FDR first took office, a British statesman and historian evaluates the President’s role in the twentieth century’s most important partnership
October/november 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 6
Roosevelt had no need for that kind of friendship—and no such loyalty. His relationships were those of occasion, with people who could be useful to him and to his often high purposes in particular circumstances. Sometimes the circumstances were manifold, as with Harry Hopkins, but the essential basis remained. This profound difference of approach affected the balance of the Roosevelt-Churchill relationship.
Who was the better strategist? In the great controversies of 1942-43, which were not personal but stemmed from differences in appraisal by the American and British staffs, Roosevelt was probably nearer to wisdom than Churchill. On the handling of Stalin toward the end of the war and on the disposition of troops that affected this, there is more room for doubt. Churchill at this stage benefited from his ability to see a single idea with greater clarity, in contrast with Roosevelt’s wider but mistier approach. However, it is easy to make oversimple judgments. Churchill’s views would not have avoided the division of Europe any more than Roosevelt’s and they took insufficient account of the problems of a continuing war with Japan. In any event, Roosevelt cannot be judged by his performance at a conference at which he was as sick as he was at Yalta.
Not only after Yalta but also after the 1944 campaign, most people who had seen him up close thought, with the benefit of hindsight at any rate, that Roosevelt would quickly die. They must have talked to many others. Yet when he did die, there were great waves of shock throughout America and the world. It was partly that after twelve years—the longest period of continuous power for any democratic leader for a century and more—it was almost impossible to imagine a world without him in the White House. There was also a peculiar irony in the fact that he would not live to see the postwar world. He had done more to shape it than anyone else, both to experiment successfully with welfare capitalism, which gave the countries of the fortunate West twentyfive years of the greatest surge to prosperity ever seen in recorded history, and to lay the foundations of benevolent American dominance, which was the shield for this advance.
It was not a small legacy. Yet a major mystery remains. Did he give much thought to passing it on? Did he, like others, realize that his chances of serving out even a substantial part of his fourth term were minuscule? Did he regard the choice of his third Vice-President as being peculiarly important? All the evidence says no. Certainly he was determined not to have Henry Wallace again. But that was just getting rid of a piece of baggage that had served its use. It was quite different from giving particular attention to the choice of Harry S. Truman, whom he hardly knew. Perhaps he was just lucky because he was self-confident, and self-confident because he was lucky, in this as in so many other things, and that these qualities in combination were his greatest attributes.